Thursday, April 10, 2014

Understanding Work and Service

(From the April 10, 2014 issue of the Grand Haven Tribune)

I’ve been thinking about work lately. I’m not just thinking about work in the sense of thinking about my job. Rather, I’ve been thinking about work in the big picture perspective.

This is the time of year when work is on the minds of young people about to graduate from college. They are gearing up for final projects and exams, but also interviewing for jobs. They are excited and nervous about making the transition from student to full-time employee. Some of them have jobs as college students, of course. But now they like to talk about getting that first ‘career’ job.

I would agree that it is exciting. No doubt a good job in the field that one has studied is a worthy reward for the effort put into a college degree. But in listening to some students talk, I get a little uneasy feeling too. They focus on how much they will get paid. They talk about the benefits and how much vacation they’ll have. They carry on about whether their job will be something fun for them to do or drudgery.

It’s hard to tell them not to think about such things. But I want to encourage them to think about something more. I want them to think about what “work” really is. And it really is about more than a job, a way to pay the bills, or an extension of one’s personal identity.

More than a dozen years ago my father-in-law gave me a book written by a friend of his. “Work: The Meaning of Your Life. A Christian Perspective” is written by Lester DeKoster, a former college librarian and professor of speech and also a magazine editor and author of several other books. He sets the course for his brief little book by defining work simply yet profoundly. As he says, “work is the form in which we make ourselves useful to others.”

That’s what was in the back of my head recently as I overheard all the talk about work. I wanted to hear a little less about salary, job description, and benefits. I wanted to hear young people talk with some excitement about whom they would serve, and how.

Meanwhile, the faculty where I teach have been talking in the past semester about service. For those outside of higher education, I should explain that when professors are reviewed for tenure and promotion—and indeed beyond that—they are evaluated in three categories: teaching, research, and service.

Across the country it’s the same. Professors are expected to teach well and engage in some form of scholarship. But they also are expected to do something called “service.” What this means is administrative work, such as chairing committees, advising students, and a number of other things that wouldn’t fall under teaching and research. In some sense, based on the definition of work above, I would say everything is service. But on university campuses there is this unique distinction.

The issue recently has been that a few faculty members seem to do the bulk of this service work while others do very little. People were speaking up and wanting some equity. The implication is that some faculty members focus on teaching and research and leave the service largely to others.

This is not unique to higher education. There are tasks in any occupation that need doing, and there are people who tend to do those tasks and others who say “that’s not my job.” Of course, this problem would go away if people would see work as a way of being useful to others.

It’s interesting to me to regard a lot of retired people I know. Many of them do not have a regular job with a salary. But they still work. They volunteer in formal and informal ways. They actually say it: “I just want to make myself useful.”

I admire that. And I need to apply that now, well before I retire. Instead of looking at my own agenda and to-do list and seeing everything else as an interruption, I could take a lesson from the book I received years ago and look at everything I do at work in the light of how I am being useful to others.

There’s an old expression that if you do what you love you’ll never work another day in your life. It’s possible to amend that by saying that if you see work as a way to be useful to others you’ll probably satisfy yourself.